by Zohra KhanSep 12, 2022
The newest artwork by Belgian architect and artist-duo Gijs Van Vaerenbergh depicts and references, in a contemporary manner, the ingenious hydraulic engineering of the New Dutch Waterline in The Netherlands. Called the Waterline Monument, the architectural installation is an iteration of a solo element and material – hundreds of open, weathered steel tubes of different lengths are stacked atop and beside each other in an arrangement that creates a field of tension, an "abstract repetition" - while the diverse lengths of the tubes form the only irregular reliefs.
To mark the occasion of the country’s largest national monument being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2021, the Province of Utrecht launched a competition for the creation of a new work of art in honour of the New Dutch Waterline, which was won by Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, a longstanding collaboration between Pieterjan Gijs and Arnout Van Vaerenbergh.
Installed on the slope between the A12 motorway and the lush green recreational area of Laagravense Plassen in Utrecht, the Netherlands, the Waterline Monument is given a prominent location in the stretching landscape, and seems tremendous viewed from certain angles. As seen across their oeuvre, the architecture and art studio enhance the recognisability of their site-specific installations by referencing familiar architecture and traditional building elements, which are part of "collective memory". In this case, too, the three arches formed between the dam-like structure allude to the figure of a lock, drawing on one of the chief elements of the waterline system.
Used between 1815 and 1940, the New Dutch Waterline is an extensive system that lies concealed within the Dutch landscape. It was a historic defence line measuring 85 kilometres in length, an ingenious system consisting of 45 forts, six fortified towns, two castles, 85 machine gun casemates, over 700 concrete troop shelters and casemates as well as more than 100 military sluices and water engineering works, capable of creating deliberate floods or confining them. Forming a crucial connection between dykes and embankments, the system made it possible to flood kilometres of land in the west of the Netherlands when activated, thus making the area inaccessible to invading enemies, according to the studio based in Leuven, Belgium. The Waterline Monument, spanning 10.04m x 6.65m x 6m, is an abstract reconstruction of the locally known figure of this water lock.
The duo expressed interest in its underlying mechanics and wanted to represent the engineering through the monumental visual language they are known for, combining the landscape with their artwork. "The brief was quite open. It specified a perimeter of intervention between a highway and a recreational pond. We were free in how the artwork referred to the Dutch Waterline," shares Gijs Van Vaerenbergh, outlining the brief shared by the commissioning clients, Recreatieschap Stichtse Groenlanden with the support of Rijkswaterstaat, Province of Utrecht and BPD Cultuurfonds, in collaboration with Down Under and the communities Houten and Nieuwegein.
"By presenting the lock in its essential form, that is, three arched openings at right angles to the viewing direction, the image is shifted from that of a lock to that of an (entrance) gate," explains the duo. “As the sculpture is situated on top of the slope, it is also reminiscent of a triumphal arch," they elaborate, on the ambiguous meanings imbued in the artwork’s form. The creators worked with an engineer to develop a system of combs placed between the tubes to hold the stacking in place, and to assemble the whole thing on-site with ease.
When seen from a distance, the image of the lock remains dominant. Upon closer look, its appearance is determined by the slightly varying rhythm and composition of the corten steel tubes that lends repose and soft dynamism to the governing solidity of the structure. Once again, as witnessed in their former works, Gijs Van Vaerenbergh strives for simplicity and the most fundamental way of building and emoting.
The slope onto which the work is positioned, the footpath, the A12 motorway and the water, all run parallel to each other and at right angles to the tubes of the Waterline Monument. The artwork is perpetually present as a solid stack of tubes, except when visitors pass by it, when the proximity transforms it, "dissolving" as visitors walk around it – one’s gaze then not only passes through the arches of the gate but also through the tubes themselves. "For a brief moment, the image dissolves; the artwork becomes partially transparent. This creates a special, elusive moment of wonder and a new perception of spatiality. It is only when we let go of our frame of reference and use our senses, that we can experience the multifaceted character of Waterline Monument," explains Gijs and Van Vaerenbergh.
"This work is both very different from our other works, as much as they are related to them. It is the first time that we worked with steel pipes, but the underlying relatability was that we began from an architectural typology, in this case, a water lock. Some of our earlier installations referred to domes, gates, churches, and more, all exploring different spatiality and materiality,” they say.
Gijs Van Vaerenbergh has been designing spatial and sculptural interventions for the public space since 2007. Their site-specific works revel at the intersection of visual art and architecture, combining a conceptual approach with a monumental visual language, as seen in their latest endeavour. Drawing on the site’s history, their creative interlocking of reference, reinterpretation, and transformation forms a multi-layered reading of the location, giving it identity, and playing with the expectations of the spectator.
With the Waterline Monument, Gijs Van Vaerenbergh demonstrates that form, architecture and space can be organic and not strictly limited to a singular image. The various openings and perspectives created with the stacking arrangement permit an ever-changing relationship with the surrounding urban environment. References are provided and typologies are depicted, which they simultaneously call into question to further deconstruct and amplify the story of the site.